April 5, 2007 — Vol. 42, No. 34
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Summit echoes hip-hop’s mixed messages

Vidya Rao and Dan Devine

Lesson: Hip-hop shouldn’t be about guns, drugs and women — except when it makes money.

Lesson: Hip-hop is about staying true to yourself and communicating what you see around you — except when doing the opposite will increase record sales.

Lesson: Hip-hop is about thoughtful songs analyzing cultural problems and searching for solutions — so long as they’ve got simple hooks to keep heads bobbing all summer.

These and other ambiguous lessons surfaced at Roxbury Center for the Arts at Hibernian Hall last weekend during the second annual Hip-Hop Empowerment Summit, sponsored by Berklee College of Music, ACT Roxbury and Critical Breakdown.

Billed as an opportunity for young artists to hone their skills and learn the importance of social responsibility, the conference was marked by mixed messages and meandering discussions that emphasized maybe the most enduring lesson of all: as viable and vibrant as it is, hip-hop is complex, and damn hard to define.

“With this event we’re hoping that young people will walk away with a new understanding of hip-hop, and as artists, they could realize a commitment to their community,” explained Erik Weissa, director of Critical Breakdown.

The day started off on the right note, with Berklee professor of music production and engineering Prince Charles Alexander attempting to demystify hip-hop’s kingpins and present music industry success as an attainable goal.

“I’m that kid who’s just like you. I walked these streets, from the South End to Mattapan,” said Alexander, a Castle Square product who carved out a successful career as a recording engineer and producer for the likes of The Notorious B.I.G., P. Diddy and Mary J. Blige. “These people are not very far from who you are. These people are your big brothers. Lil’ Kim is your big sister, crazy as she is.”

After an exhilarating performance by the United Roots Dance Troupe, whose dancing incorporates contemporary and old school breaking and pop-locking, participants then attended one of three simultaneous breakout sessions: a panel discussion on women and hip-hop, a workshop on the art of spoken word and the “Demo Derby/Deconstructing Classic Hip-Hop Songs” panel, which promised an opportunity for artists to have their lyrics and beats critiqued by industry professionals.

The women and hip-hop panel included Cynthia Gordy, assistant editor of Essence magazine, local rapper BayHolla, WMBD-FM radio DJ and activist DJ Nomadik, Berklee associate professor Armsted Christian and Darcie-Nicole Wicknick of the Boston Hip-Hop Alliance.

“Back in the day, hip-hop represented a variety of voices and a variety of images of women,” Gordy said in the panel’s opening. “For every party track, there was something about the community, something about crime, something about emotion. As a result of the corporate takeover of the culture, this has changed.”

She cited a number of emcees, such as Queen Latifah, MC Lyte and Roxanne Shanté, as being successful and positive role models to young women.

“I think about artists nowadays, and the list is much smaller,” she said. “You have Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown and Jackie-O, who are all pretty much saying the same, sexualized thing.”

Audience members — none of whom were the youth to which this event was geared — questioned why women have been so objectified in hip-hop, and what responsibility artists, both female and male, bear for the messages pervading their music.

“It’s important to note that hip-hop did not create sexism,” responded Wicknick. “These same images of women have existed in other areas of pop culture, including rock music.”

The convoluted, often over-intellectualized discussion moved from the images of women, to the changes women in particular have to make to their style and sound to make it as artists in the business, to the meaning and role of hip-hop in general.

The panelists themselves were unable to clearly articulate the definition of hip-hop, with BayHolla explaining that hip-hop is a form of music, but “I’m not sure if it is art; I think that it used to be.”

While the workshop rehashed the winding road of problems in both hip-hop culture and the music industry, it offered no real solutions — other than to ignore the images and stay true to one’s craft.

“Even though it may be the slower road, I tell artists to stay away from the commercial,” said Wicknick. “You wouldn’t ask Picasso to paint comic strips. You wouldn’t ask a visual artist to compromise her artistic integrity. So why should a hip-hop artist do it?”

Panelists at the Demo Derby across the hall paid lip service to that ideal, but the content of both their discussions and their critiques sent a different message.

Joined on the panel by entertainment lawyer John Kellogg, STARCYDE Entertainment President June Archer, longtime Boston pop culture critic Renee Graham and Berklee student Ryan Williamson, Alexander started the session by imparting experiential wisdom to the sparse crowd.

He encouraged them to broaden their musical tastes beyond hip-hop, to read, to get beyond the notion that certain kinds of music are “corny,” and most importantly, to remain true to themselves, their lifestyles and what they see every day in their songs — a theme Graham would later echo, saying the biggest battle artists face isn’t “a matter of positive versus negative; it’s a matter of reality versus mythology.”

Alexander then played the first classic hip-hop song for the panel to deconstruct: “Juicy,” The Notorious B.I.G.’s landmark single about moving from being dead broke to a lavish life of luxury — written and recorded, the professor emphasized, when Biggie was still broke and had nothing. Repeated praise of the rapper’s signature flow and gift for intricate wordplay neglected to address the inherent contradiction in the song’s selection.

With the notable exception of Graham’s enlightening dissection of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” the discussion soon veered away from what goes into making a classic record, heading for ponderous sidebars touching on the pros and cons of sampling (Kellogg’s verdict: don’t sample if you want to get paid); the best ways to submit music to record labels and talent scouts; and the overwhelming odds against ever getting noticed by those labels and scouts.

After repeatedly trumpeting the importance of thought-provoking lyrics and original takes on important issues, when the time came for the panelists to listen to and critique participants’ demo CDs, variations on one response were heard time and again.

“The hook didn’t sound like an event,” Archer told local group Grind Mode, whose songs touched on the need for peace, political reform and cultural unity.

“Is there a hook?” Williamson asked after Grind Mode’s second song.

Boston-via-Haiti dancehall artist Kleva Kidd’s track was energetic and sounded club-ready, but he “should have brought the hook in sooner,” according to the panel.

The emphasis on catchy choruses stems from label executives’ need to determine immediately if a record is marketable enough to move major units.

“At [P. Diddy’s label] Bad Boy, you got about 20 seconds” to win decision-makers over, said Alexander. “So if you give me some eight-bar intro, it better be the most blazing eight bars we’ve ever heard in our lives.”

Translation: if you can bring style with substance, you might get on — but in a pinch, style’s going to win out.

By the time a relatively lifeless freestyle session brought the event to a close, the summit itself had turned out to be a powerful metaphor for the current state of hip-hop. Caught in the tug-of-war between whether the culture’s raison d’être is to represent the community or reap commercial success, hip-hop has developed a multiple personality disorder that, thus far, has kept the two results mutually exclusive.

Though the summit’s stated goal was to bring a sense of community consciousness to artists on the rise, the reality was that it reiterated the status quo, a point succinctly stated by STARCYDE’s Archer.

“I mean, I love [underground lyricists like] Talib Kweli and Pharoahe Monch, but I understand why [megastars] Jay-Z and Kanye West do what they do,” said Archer. “It’s the music business, and at the end of the day, business is a much bigger word than music.”

(Left to right) June Archer, president of STARCYDE Entertainment, John Kellogg, assistant chair of Berklee’s music business/management department and Prince Charles Alexander, production and engineering professor, critique demo snippets during the “Demo Derby” panel at Saturday’s Hip Hop Empowerment Summit. (Allen Bush photo)

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